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January 18, 1998

Cox ready to launch
high-speed Internet service

By Timothy C. Barmann

"We will have access in our homes and offices to facsimile newspaper reproduction, to teaching machines, computer data banks and, in the future perhaps, even electronic inspection of merchandise by which the housewife will order her requirements from great supermarkets."

That was the bold (if sexist) prediction in 1969 by Rhode Island's top cable television regulator, the late Archie Smith.

Speaking before a cable industry group in Denver nearly 30 years ago, Smith gave his vision of the future of cable television.

Next month, Smith's prediction for cable will finally happen in Rhode Island. Cox Communications says it will launch its high-speed Internet service here early next month.

Cox has been talking about offering Internet service in Rhode Island for nearly three years. Now it seems it is finally coming.

The service is called Cox@Home and it promises to make surfing the World Wide Web almost a hundred times faster than it is using a conventional 28.8 Kbps modem.

Typical speeds that customers will see will be 2 to 3 megabits per second, says Cox.

In English, that means that a 900 Kbyte file (about the size of a short video clip) can be sent to your computer in 7 seconds, according to Cox's Web site. The same file would take over four minutes to download with a 28.8 Kbps modem, the typical telephone modem sold today.

But the speeds Cox boasts of will be achieved only under the best conditions and will vary widely, depending on Internet congestion and how fast the Web site you connect to responds.

John Wolfe, Cox's vice president of government and public affairs, provided some details about the service last week.

It will be available in four communities at first, and later this year will move to other areas where Cox has rebuilt its cable network. Cable and non-cable subscribers throughout Warwick, West Warwick, East Greenwich, and in the eastern part of Coventry will be able to sign up. There are some 43,500 customers in those areas who will be able to get the service.

The cost will be somewhat pricey compared to the typical $20-a-month rate that many now pay for unlimited Internet access. For Cox cable subscribers who elect to rent the cable modem, the cost will be $44.95 a month, on top of your regular cable charges. You can stay online for as long as you want. Your connection stays on all the time, and a phone line is not needed.

The service will also be available to non-cable subscribers for $54.95 a month.

There is a $175 installation charge, which falls to $100 if you already have a "network card" in your computer. A network card is used to connect computers, and will act as a bridge from your PC to the cable modem.

Once you sign up for the service, a technician will come to your house, install the cable line to your computer and install the hardware and software in your computer.

The service comes with a special version of Netscape's Web browser. You must use the Web browsing software Cox provides.

You can elect to buy the cable modem, rather than rent it, at a cost of about $400. That will save you about $15 a month.

But Scott Hightower, the product manager from Cox who is overseeing the Cox@Home rollout in Rhode Island, said buying may have disadvantages.

That's because only recently did the cable industry reach an agreement about how to standardize the operation and manufacture of cable modems. The new modems will not be produced until later this year, so the modems that are available now do not adhere to the new standards.

I translate that to mean that newer modems will be coming out later and you might be better off renting at least until then.

Subscribers will also have 5 megabytes of space on a Web server to set up their own Web sites.

Wolfe said he expects the first people to sign up will be "power Internet users" who are online a lot and therefore need the speed. He said that the cost for the @Home service is comparable to what one would pay for a second phone line plus a monthly fee to an Internet access provider.

@Home is actually a partnership of several of the largest cable television companies, including Cox, Tele-Communications Inc., and Comcast Corp.

Rhode Island will be Cox's fifth market to launch the service. The first launch, about a year ago, was in Orange County, Calif. Since then, Cox has made it available in Phoenix, Omaha, Neb., and Meriden, Conn. There are over 10,000 subscribers nationwide, Wolfe said.

The company doesn't expect to have nearly the penetration rate it enjoys with cable television, which is about 65 percent of all homes, Wolfe said. Cox is making the investment to offer the Internet service because it won't cost that much more to add that capability to its rebuilt network, Wolfe said. Cox is about halfway through a $190 million project to upgrade its cable network in the state, which will allow the company to offer digital television and telephone services as well. The company serves 90 percent of Rhode Island's cable subscribers.

Some critics of cable Internet service say that there are security concerns that arise from connecting dozens of homes together in a network to share a single link to the Internet. They say that may open your door to hackers in your own neighborhood trying to get into your system.

It's probably safe to assume there will always be hackers who will find holes in whatever security measures are set up in computer networks. The fact that hackers have been able to break into sites by Yahoo!, the FBI and other major companies attests to that.

Cox says that most security concerns should be addressed by turning off a setting on your computer that allows your files to be shared by others.

Mike Bilow, a computer consultant in Cranston, is not convinced that cable companies such as Cox will be able to sustain the kinds of speeds it promises as more and more people sign up.

"The cable modem system is ultimately a kind of pyramid scheme where the first people to try it find that there is huge bandwidth and fantastic speed," he said. "But the bandwidth is shared so that things will slow down for everyone as the service becomes more popular."

Hightower of Cox said that the company has the ability to "scale up" its network to add more resources should the demand call for it.

Much of these criticisms are hypothetical at this point because cable Internet service is still in its infancy. We have yet to see if congestion problems do arise because the service is not yet available to a large number of people in any one area.

So far, the first users of the service seem satisfied. Rick Scott, an electrical engineer who lives in Chandler, Ariz., said he now will explore Web sites that are filled with graphics that he would have simply ignored while surfing with his telephone modem. He signed up for the service last month.

The connection he has at home is now faster than his connection at work. He works for Motorola, where designs radio equipment that travels aboard space crafts, such as Pathfinder, which recently explored Mars.

Scott said he can't imagine ever going back to tapping into the Internet the old way, with a telephone modem.

"Anything else would be like crawling," he said.

System requirements:

To use the service, customers will need an IBM compatible computer running Windows 3.11 or Windows 95, or a Macintosh computer with Mac OS 7.5.3 or later. Windows computers need at least a 486 DX66-based computer, but a Pentium-based computer is preferred. Macs users need at least at 68040 processor but a PowerPC processor is recommended. Both systems need at least 16 megabytes of RAM. Windows computers will need from 45 to 83 megabytes of hard disk space while Macs will need from 31 to 46 megabytes. Color monitors are required as well.

Getting more information:

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.